`Othello' Gets a Face Lift

The Orson Welles classic tops the list of restored films making the rounds

WILL home video eventually drive theatrical moviegoing out of existence?

Not by the current evidence, it won't. Even as the videocassette market continues to thrive, a large number of movie theaters are managing to stay in business very nicely.

In addition to new movies, moreover, there's turning out to be a steady audience for revivals of old pictures on the wide screen, indicating that certain films can draw crowds to theaters even though dozens of similar items are readily available at local video stores.

Recent additions to the big-screen revival repertoire include "Citizen Kane," the 1941 classic by Orson Welles; "The Wages of Fear," directed in 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot; and "Spartacus," the 1960 epic by Stanley Kubrick.

In some cases, such as "The Wages of Fear" and "Spartacus," the revival versions of old pictures incorporate footage not included in the movie's first release. But sometimes the wide-screen version is identical to the edition that's easily rentable on video. When spectators take the time and trouble to see such a movie at a theater, it's because the big-screen experience still has valuable advantages over the TV: a larger and sharper image, and an audience to share the adventure.

This doesn't mean that any old movie is worth a theatrical revival. But the latest to arrive are good candidates for this special treatment. "Casablanca," the 1942 drama with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman rekindling romance amid the storms of war, starts its 50th-anniversary engagement on April 10.

Not everybody loves this movie, it's true - one commentator has called it a "family reunion of cliches" - but most spectators can't resist its story and performances. It needs no special endorsement from me, except to say it's an "audience picture" of the best kind and has held up marvelously every time I've seen it.

The other movie on the springtime revival list is not nearly so well known: "Othello," first released in 1952 by Orson Welles, who directed it and plays the title character. Its new release doesn't offer any shots or scenes excluded from the original version. But the picture has been refurbished, with new copies made from an original negative that was recently discovered in storage, and a newly rerecorded soundtrack corrects the vocal murkiness of the existing prints.

The restoration was overseen by Welles's daughter, Beatrice Welles-Smith, who told me recently that "Othello" is the only production her father owned outright; therefore it's the only one likely to receive such loving restorative care.

Always a vivid and exciting film, "Othello" has now regained the freshness of image and sound that helped it earn a best-picture prize at the Cannes Film Festival four decades ago. It's thrilling to have it back in theaters.

The story of "Othello" is familiar to Shakespeare-lovers everywhere. Its tragic hero, fresh from military victory and political triumph, is dizzily in love with Desdemona, his new bride, until his evil lieutenant, Iago, decides to weave a web of jealousy and hate that ultimately destroys all three of them.

The centerpieces of the tragedy, including Desdemona's stolen handkerchief and her murder at Othello's hands, are among the most celebrated coups of Shakespeare's legendary oeuvre.

The story of Welles's movie version has its own high drama and irony. Welles's film career had been damaged in the early 1940s by the financial failure of such masterpieces as "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons," and subsequent pictures like "The Stranger" and "The Lady From Shanghai" had been twisted by studio bosses into final forms that Welles never intended.

"Othello" was filmed in Europe, but troubles plagued Welles there, too. The production kept running out of money, forcing the director to suspend work while he hustled around raising funds by directing stage productions in Paris and London and acting in Carol Reed's movie "The Third Man," a classic in its own right.

As a result, shooting didn't take the usual period of a few weeks or months but nearly two years - followed by two years of editing, as Welles assembled his fragmented footage into a coherent whole. And the footage certainly was fragmented, since the director was forced to shoot certain scenes from angles he wouldn't ordinarily have chosen, to hide the absence of performers who weren't available because of other obligations. Many of his own close-ups were shot separately from the rest of the picture at t he end of the production process; and at times you can detect Welles's voice dubbing some other performer's part.

Welles usually managed to turn difficulties to advantage, though, as in the scene when the character Roderigo is killed. Costumes were unavailable because of unpaid bills, so Welles changed the setting to a bathhouse where everybody wore towels instead of clothing.

The result is one of the film's most respected sequences, admired for sheer cinematic merit, quite apart from the brilliant "save" that happened behind the scenes.

Welles discusses such matters with his usual eloquence in a documentary called "Filming Othello," which deserves to be better known and more widely seen than it has been so far.

Perhaps some enterprising film-revival expert will put it into broad release one of these days.

For now, moviegoers should take full advantage of "Othello" in its freshly scrubbed and renovated form.

It's a full-scale classic and a lot of fun, to boot - part Shakespeare, part Hollywood melodrama, and part pure brilliance of the kind that made Welles a gift to the ages.

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